By Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice on November 2, 2019
There are large and difficult issues facing Kill Devil Hills — such as stormwater management, the need for workforce housing and the impassioned debate over large event homes in the town.
Four candidates are seeking two slots on the Kill Devil Hills Board of Commissioners in the Nov. 5 municipal elections: Contractor Skip Jones, who was appointed to the board last year (by virtue of a coin flip) and is running to retain that seat; longtime Surfrider Foundation official Ivy Ingram; Dillon Heikens, who operates Nags Head Hammocks; and local attorney BJ McAvoy. One seat opened up when Mayor Pro Tem Mike Hogan chose not to run again.
In interviews with the Voice, the four candidates acknowledged those big issues, and largely agreed that it will take compromise, cooperation and coordination to resolve them — if they indeed can be resolved.
And they also talked about another facet of municipal life that they believe needs attention. That one falls into the broad and interconnected category of town aesthetics, civic pride and community engagement.
“I still feel the community isn’t as engaged as it could or should be,” said McAvoy, citing the value of efforts to improve town parks and connect neighborhoods with sidewalks. “I have a belief in really trying to bring the community together with more events…like the ice cream social.”
“We have to foster a culture of more engagement,” noted Heikens, who also mentioned encouraging community events like ice cream socials and the National Night Out. “Being engaged feels good. It feels like you’re helping.”
And Ingram suggests civic engagement could be enhanced by strengthening the flow of information between citizens and the town. “I think maybe the missing piece…is connecting the citizens with that department, with that factual information on what the town can or cannot do,” by trying to “direct those passionate citizens to where they can go to get those answers.”
Jones cited the priority of town enhancement, explaining the he is a fan of the Duck boardwalk. “There already has been a study done,” he said, adding that he believes there could be grant money available for such a project in Kill Devil Hills. “It would just be an incredible place for the town on the water,” he asserted.
One interesting element of this municipal election is that three candidates – mayoral hopeful Ben Sproul and commissioner candidates McAvoy and Ingram seem to be running as a team of sorts, as their color-coordinated campaign signs indicate.
McAvoy described the trio as “not a voting bloc,” but “like-minded…None of us have an agenda of any type coming in…It made sense to join forces in more or less marketing and promoting each other.”
Jones and Heikens have misgivings about the arrangement. Jones said Sproul’s pairing with the two commissioner candidates “makes me lean the other way in the mayor’s race.” (Sproul is running against Anne Petera.) Heikens said, “The slate ticket is a bit of a concern and hard to run against…It makes me feel like the lone man on the block.”
One issue at the forefront is the debate over big homes in Kill Devil Hills, which has heated up lately. On Oct. 16, the commissioners voted 3-2 to reject two proposed text amendments aimed at addressing issues associated with large single-family dwellings. One proposal required increased vegetative buffering between large homes with a 6,000-square-foot lot coverage or more. The other called for additional parking lot setbacks and an emergency access lane for homes with 11 bedrooms or more, as well as limited stacked parking to six vehicles.
Jones cast one of the three votes against the measure and told the Voice, “I’m really getting tired of being beaten up on both sides [on the issue]. Everybody says that we need a middle ground. How do we do it…It’s going to take communication.”
“I’m not a huge proponent of big homes, but I am a proponent of property rights,” he added, noting that one way forward may be “a third designation [for such homes]. It wouldn’t be single family, it wouldn’t be commercial. I think there should be a sprinkler system in there.”
Discussing those event homes, McAvoy said that “Unfortunately, North Carolina still calls them single-family homes. That kind of tells us the state should create another category, at least for safety issues. Until the state does something, I’m fully behind property rights.”
He added that one possibility worth examining is looking for a “compromise” with builders, by “encouraging them or incentivizing them in some way to put a sprinkler system in or a fire lane there.”
Heikens said that, “I spoke in favor of those [two proposed] amendments because I think it is a fair compromise…compromises that kept us within the realm of the law. This is a very delicate walk.”
“I really am a property rights guy,” he added, noting that “for us to move forward on this issue, we’re going to have to compromise” and make decisions that won’t generate “a zillion lawsuits.”
As is the case with the other candidates, Ingram sees the big house issue as one with lots of nuance. “I think it’s definitely a multi-faceted issue,” she said. “There’s the concern of safety, which is my number one [issue] with the large homes.”
She also advised “having a conversation with developers. Maybe there’s some give and take we’re missing…We’re not the only coastal community that’s dealing with big houses.”
On the need to create what is now called “essential” housing that is affordable for year-round workers, the candidates agreed that the lack of such housing is creating economic difficulties by making difficult it for businesses to find employees.
I’ve talked to planning staff about this,” said Ingram. “It’s another issue where we’re not the only place dealing with this…It’s a big issue and it’s going to become even a bigger issue as we become more populated.”
“I support some sort of coalition between the towns” to encourage more workforce housing, McAvoy stated. “I think we should all be on the same page in this…which is rare. As you know, we’re all doing our own thing…There’s a duty to help alleviate that problem for the businesses. You can’t obviously attract employees here with the housing prices now.”
Jones talked about possibly building affordable housing in mixed-use areas, but acknowledged there’s no easy solution.
“You cannot do affordable housing unless it’s subsidized locally or by the state of by the federal government. You’ve got to make it worthwhile,” he said. “It’s the biggest problem that Dare County has. It affects everything. A lot of restaurants that would stay open seven days a week cannot do it now because they’re sharing the same workforce.”
And Heikens alluded to the “NIMBY” (Not In My Backyard) backlash that such housing can create.
“Affordable housing is not just a town issue,” he said. “It’s a regional issue. There’s got to be a better solution…I do think we’ll have to work with our larger representatives to get things done…A lot of multi-use housing [units] aren’t the prettiest use, and it’s caused a lot of consternation in the community in the past.”
In their Voice interviews, three candidates — Ingram, Heikens and McAvoy — also raised the issue of stormwater management as a major priority. On that subject, Heikens and McAvoy cited the need to work with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to make real progress on the issue.
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